Let’s leave tonight promising to tell our stories,
because we weren’t intended to survive.
—Dr. Josie R. Johnson on the evening of the launch of her memoir, Hope in the Struggle
I was a small child when my parents divorced. My mother moved my three siblings and me from our home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to make a new life in Minneapolis, and Dad moved his new family to Springfield, Massachusetts.
Life is never easy for a single parent, and Mama was no exception. I always bristle when I hear white feminists talk about work as a privilege. Black women have always had to work, often cleaning the houses of wealthy white women who were “privileged” to work outside their homes. In addition to cleaning houses, Mama also did piecework in a factory where she was paid according to the amount of work she produced. But even with two jobs, she had to resort to commodities such as government cheese and a spam-like meat substance in order to keep food on the table. Even so, she kept our home spotless, made our clothes, kept us clean, and nursed us through our childhood illnesses. She found creative ways to stretch that tasteless government food, often inventing dishes she hoped we would enjoy, being sure to include healthy servings of fruit and the fresh vegetables she grew in the garden she kept on the side of our house. And she spent a lot of time in the hot summers canning so the produce from her garden would last through the cold Minnesota winter months.
Like her mother before her, my mother wanted to be a hairstylist. Over time, she accomplished her dream in a much larger way than she envisioned when she was a young mother struggling to keep food on the table. She worked her way through beauty school and then went to work at Bea’s Beauty Shop in South Minneapolis. Her struggle continued for a while, but things got easier after she met Barney. I was about twelve years old when Mama and Barney married and he brought his young son to live with us. A gentle and loving man, Barney was a terrific father and stepfather. He adored my mother and us children. Mama treated his son as though he were her own child, and we all accepted him as our brother. To this day, my children’s faces brighten during frequent mentions of Grandpa Barney.
In his professional life, Welton “Barney” Barnett was the first Black auditor for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. But his real passion was music. He picked his left-landed Fender Telecaster guitar in small combos and also with a big band that played in a ritzy suburban supper club called the White House. We kids loved watching him when he sat on the couch quietly practicing, his amplifier turned off so as not to disturb the family, and we enjoyed dancing around in time to the music when his friends came over to practice in our basement. It was unfortunate that in keeping with the times Barney was forced to enter the supper club through the back door while his white bandmates went in through the front door. While I was preparing for an estate sale after Mama and Barney passed away, I came across an obituary about Barney in an archived 1985 edition of Downbeat Magazine. There, for the first time, we children learned that he had played with jazz legends Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington “in his NYC heydays in the ’40s.”
Mama and Barney both had good heads for business, and together they opened Mama’s own beauty salon, Joanna Salon of Beauty on Forty-eighth Street and Fourth Avenue in South Minneapolis at a time when the practice of redlining limited Black families to living and doing business in areas that were not as far south as that neighborhood.
Later, after her first employer, Bea, passed away, they bought the building Bea had owned and turned it into a beauty school. Career Beauty Academy was the first and only African American beauty school to ever exist in the State of Minnesota. Unfortunately, they were unable to sustain it. It closed after five short years. But that did not stop my courageous mother. She opened another salon and also accepted an invitation to start a Cosmetology program in the Minneapolis Public Schools, a program that still exists at Edison High School. And when she was almost sixty years old, after she had owned and operated two beauty salons and the beauty school, and after she had started the program for the public schools, I proudly witnessed my amazing mother march across the stage of Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota to accept the bachelor of science degree in vocational education she had earned.
I come from a long line of role models, Black women entrepreneurs and educators. My maternal grandmother developed and sold a line of hair products and taught her patrons how to use them. My great-grandmother, together with my great-grandfather, turned their home into a boarding house for African American railroad porters in Lincoln, Nebraska, where porters were not allowed to stay in hotels. I am proud to be the inheritor of my foremothers’ remarkable, enterprising spirit. It is because of their legacy that I have been able to achieve as much as I have.